Frontier Reporter Dirt asks...
Two laundresses with pots

Question by Frontier Reporter, January 1878:

Oooo,, hot! Pardon me, ma'm, for interrupting you, but can you tell us what you do here at Fort Griffin?

Laundress answers:

Well, as anyone can see, I'm workin'—and workin' hard—stirring these steaming pots. I work for the Army. I came out west to Ft. Griffin with the 17th Infantry in May of 1868. I'm a washerwoman. I get paid to wash the soldiers' clothes. That may not sound like very high and mighty work to some people but, let me tell you, I earn my keep. Why, last July, my husband's paycheck was only $13. Do you know what I brought in that same month? $40. $40!photo of longjohns That's just about what the head laundress here makes every month—because she mostly washes officers' clothes.

photo of coinsI charge each soldier by the piece. I'll wash anything—undershirts, overshirts, cotton and canvas pants—even wash their unmentionables. It all adds up, too, a nickel here, a dime there. And I do good work, too. I don't waste my days lolling around, talking up the men, like some women I won't name.

photo of hands holding lye soap

But the best part is that the Army sees that I get my pay. Every month, the laundresses get to line up first at the pay table. We're given our due even before the soldiers see their paycheck.

Recipe for Lye Soap

11 pounds of hog grease
2 quarts of lye
7 gallons of water

Heat water in big heavy pot on fire. Add lye, being careful not to touch it. Drop in grease and boil and stir for about 4 hours. Try out soap in small saucer. If it's hard, take it off fire. Stir a chicken feather in it. If feather gets cut, it's done. Pour out into flat pans and let set for about two weeks. Cut into bars.

Best to make it when the moon is right or it won't set right

Do you see those white canvas tents over yonder, on the far edge of the post? That's where most of the laundresses live. Everybody calls it "Suds Row." I lived there when I first came here. But once I got married, my husband was allowed to move out of his barracks (that he shared with five other men) and move into a new house with me. We now live in this cute little frame house with its own kitchen. True, it's not much to look at on the inside, but who has time to fix it up pretty?I'm up before the sun, keeping the fires going under my pots all day so I keep the photo of a tick water boiling hot enough to kill all those wretched critters crawling on the men's clothes. Fleas, lice, ticks, you name it; I've seen every kind of varmint photo of a tiny tickin this wild land. Every day but the Sabbath, I'm up and working—soaping and scrubbing and brushing and airing and hanging out clothes and mending and sewing on buttons all the time having that hot sun blazing down on me. And,photo of tiny tick on some days, if too many soldiers have ridden away from the fort on an Indian campaign,photo of women carrying buckets of water I have to chop my own firewood. At night, when I lay down to sleep, my shoulders ache from carrying those thirty-pound buckets of water back and forth from the creek thirty to forty times a day.

photo of a clotheslineBut I'm not complaining. When my family first came to America from Ireland, I couldn't find any work on the East Coast. Now, thanks to the United States Army, I've got an important job, food to eat, a man to please, and a roof over my head. No, I'm not complaining. I saw much worse misery when I was back in Ireland.

Cleaning the Army's Clothes

Although the Army depended heavily on the laundresses to keep soldiers' clothes and bedding clean and free of bugs, the women generally were treated poorly. They were usually housed in tents at the far edges of the fort, and some were forced to sleep on the ground. At some forts, the women had to chop their own firewood in addition to doing the many heavy loads of wash each day. Although the pay was fair, the work was hot, exhausting, and dangerous. They worked over vats of boiling water and scalding steam, and made strong lye soap that could burn arms and hands. There are reports of laundresses burning to death after their long skirts brushed too close to the fires.

Credits: Character dialogue by Lisa Waller Rogers; top painting by Charles Shaw; photo of lye soap and laundress interpreter Gail Young with buckets by Kevin Young, courtesy of Buffalo Gap Historic Village.

Return to Fort Griffin and The Flat